We Need to Learn to Love All Kinds of Weather

It's not true that "only sunny weather is good."

A child empties her rain boot
A child empties her rain boot.

@alinabuzunova via Twenty20 

Arran Stibbe is very worried about the way we talk about the weather. The professor of ecological linguistics at the University of Gloucester, England, is concerned about the fact that heat and sunshine are always celebrated, while rain and clouds are constantly condemned, despite the fact that both are crucial systems for nourishing life on Earth. 

In a fascinating lengthy document called "Living in the Weather-World: Reconnection as a Path to Sustainability," Stibbe points out how British weather reporters describe "even the slightest hint of moisture in the form of clouds, mist, or light rain (‘an invasion of cloud’, ‘a threat of mist’)" as a negative thing. There are many problems associated with such a narrow view of weather. 

First, an obsession with sunshine drives harmful consumerism. When people come to believe that sunshine equals happiness, they spend money to go on wintertime tropical vacations in search of it. While there's nothing wrong with traveling occasionally (and yes, winter can be cold), "flying off for a week in Spain is an extreme, expensive, and only temporary solution compared to buying a warm coat from a second-hand shop." 

Stibbe goes on:

"These holidays are ecologically destructive because of the fuel used in transport, the environmental impact of the hotels and the huge amount of shopping that tends to go with them. But another concern is that the holidays are just for one or two weeks a year, whereas the green spaces near home can be experienced and enjoyed all year round, with the diverse and changing weather providing variety and interest."

Therein lies another problem with our negative view of non-sunny weather: It impedes our ability to observe and enjoy our own surroundings. It promotes a sense of discontent with what we have and blinds us to the beauty and rejuvenation that can be had closer to home. No business will tell us otherwise because there are no profits to be had from taking neighborhood walks.

"A story like ONLY SUNNY WEATHER IS GOOD can be damaging if it stops people enjoying the place they live in, alienates them from nature for large parts of the year, and encourages them to travel in cars, go shopping in covered malls, escape to virtual worlds, or fly off to the sun."

Furthermore, being so fixated on sunshine lessens concerns about planetary warming and the climate crisis – because, if prolonged heat is always portrayed as desirable, what's there to be upset about? It's what we've been conditioned to want.

Heat, however, is a notorious killer, and it's only getting worse. Grist reported recently that a study in Environmental Epidemiology found 5,600 heat-related annual deaths between 1997 and 2006: "That’s far more than the CDC’s estimate of 702 heat-related deaths each year for the entire country from 2004 to 2018."

Much of the West is ablaze in wildfires, air quality is deteriorating, and urban heat waves are making cities impossible to inhabit without air conditioning. Winnipeg, Canada, had to shut down a hospital operating room in 2013 "because the ventilation system couldn’t handle the heat," notes Grist. Heat waves harm crops, forests, and animal populations on land; in the oceans, they damage coral and fuel toxic algae blooms

And yet, despite these ecological tragedies, Stibbe writes, "Weather forecasters never seem to talk about rain as something cooling, refreshing, invigorating or life-supporting, just as a disappointment or an inconvenience."

walking the dog in a snowstorm
Taking the dog for a walk on a snowy day. @marn123424 via Twenty20 

How Can We Shift This Narrative?

It's clear that we need to start using new language. Reach out to weather forecasters on social media and ask for more neutral discussions of weather. I've done this with CBC Radio in Canada, whose fear-mongering winter reports have a direct impact on businesses that rely on the cold and snow to survive (not to mention disrespect the people like myself who love deep winter weather).

We can look to other cultures, such as Japan and Scandinavia, for more positive interpretations of the weather. Stibbe loves Japanese haiku and animation, which frequently offer complimentary descriptions of non-sunny weather:

"The importance of representing ordinary nature in inspiring ways in haiku and animation is that after reading the poetry or seeing the films, we are likely to come across the same flowers, plants, birds, insects, mist, or rain in our everyday lives. The haiku help us to notice them and set up an appreciative way of approaching them, opening up paths to participation and enjoyment of nature that may not have been open before."

Scandinavian parents send their children out to play in all kinds of weather, dressing them appropriately and expecting them to be resilient in the face of wind, rain, and cold. Their forest school programs also serve to teach children that the weather is always beautiful, if a bit wilder some days than others. This is another key component of changing this problem: kids need to learn that all kinds of weather are necessary, beautiful, and enjoyable.

Stibbe references Rachel Carson, well-known author of "Silent Spring." Apparently she wrote another, less-famous book called "Sense of Wonder," all about exploring nature with children. She argued that children should not be denied the chance to enjoy weather that their supervising adults find "inconvenient ... involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug."

Further recommendations that Stibbe makes are to grow one's own food, as this gives one a completely new perspective on weather, mainly the importance of rain. He recommends joining community efforts to preserve green space. He describes his personal efforts to stop the construction of a massive housing estate (4,700 homes) around his English village that would destroy acres of green belt land. He found a loophole in legislation that stated if a natural space can be proven to hold particular significance, it can be protected. Thus began some deep community reflection on the importance of the space, and the development was partially reduced.

I would urge people to invest in better outdoor gear, too. Outfitting your entire family in great snowsuits and waterproof rain clothes is far cheaper than paying for a week-long resort vacation. They'll last many years and make life more pleasant for all those remaining weeks when you're not lying on a beach.

Stibbe's eloquent piece is publicly available for all educators and students to use, in hopes of sparking discussion and debate and encouraging people to inhabit this so-called "weather-world." Weather's usefulness as an educational tool should not be underestimated: "It is special because it is something which is experienced directly by our bodies in the most local of places, but is part of a vast global system which is changing due to human activity."

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